If you’ve been a regular reader of Last Rites over the years, you know we’re pretty kind to the 80s. That has a lot to do with the fact that a number of us who toil under the yoke here are true products of that golden era, but it’s also because the 80s were simply GREAT for metal, great for entertainment, and, for the express purpose of this particular editorial, great for anyone interested in good old-fashioned showdowns. Illustrative examples d’excellence: USA vs Libya, Reagan vs Marijuana Cigarettes, Sylvester Stallone vs Basically Everything, Rebel Alliance vs Galactic Empire, Arnold Jackson vs The Gooch, Arnold Schwarzenegger vs Any Liner Greater than One, Picard vs Q, Tipper Gore vs Fun, Tawny Kitaen vs Car Hoods, and, of course, the USA hockey team vs the Soviet Red Army hockey team.
Okay, sure, every decade obviously had/has more than its fair share of showdowns, but the 80s were truly special because people were still having fun back then. You remember fun, don’t you? Of course you don’t. No one has fun anymore. Fun has been ruined by the social media age. Instead of playing outside, people spend hours on end making “hilarious” Game of Thrones memes, spoiling season finales and rating people’s faces. Humans live tweet Period Dramas in 2016, for fuck’s sake. Comparatively speaking, the only truly un-fun thing about the 80s was the comic strip Cathy and Starship’s “We Built This City.”
Anyway, in an effort to remember fun, showdown style, some of us decided to rehash an 80s Battle Royal between the two top notables of the “Big Four” of American thrash metal. Why exclude the remaining two? Well, they ain’t quite on the same playing field, to be honest. Plus, there’s a scary balance in terms of 80s output between Metallica and Slayer that lends itself to an equitable fight: Four illustrious full-lengths and one top-shelf EP just waiting to pull through their chains. Really, all that’s left to do is have fun with it and argue the matter in the most 2016 way possible: Via the internet.
What’s important to keep in mind is that this is not a judgement of either band as a whole, only on their output from 1983-1988, which was truly exemplary on both ends. But at the end of the day, one victor will be crowned, even if we all understand that one band likely carries a distinct advantage. Piece of cake victory? Maybe…
Ladies and gents, the challengers:
Metallica: Kill ‘Em All , Ride the Lightning , Master of Puppets , The $5.98 EP  and …And Justice for All 
Slayer: Show No Mercy , Haunting the Chapel EP , Hell Awaits , Reign in Blood  and South of Heaven 
Being first doesn’t instantly translate to being best. Plenty of artists originated styles and sounds only to be immediately outdone by their imitators (e.g. Bang). Certainly, when discussing legacy, staying power and timelessness of the work is crucial. If we limit output to 1983-1988, it’s hard to say that any band on planet earth had a better span than Metallica.
Beginning with what is likely metal’s seminal trash album, Kill ‘Em All, and ending with the controversial …And Justice for All, Metallica laid the foundation for metal, hard rock, grunge and basically every other type of “heavy” music. Smack in the middle of those releases are Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, arguably Metallica’s two best albums (and thus two of the best metal releases ever). Over those two releases, the evolution of heavy metal guitar playing is set in motion by Kirk Hammett, who evolves from the typical thrash sound to classically influenced solos, blues-based solos, and brilliant modular, relative minor transitions over the more advanced modulated bridges and chord changes that Hetfield used to write these tracks. Simply put, Kirk Hammett’s guitar playing is the epitome of successful electric guitar mastery. It’s a wonder that the man isn’t ranked higher on the all-time lists, as he’s certainly better than, say, Eric Clapton. Kirk’s playing, as well as Cliff Burton’s work on bass, solidify Metallica as the premier metal band of the 80s.
Furthermore, say what you will about Lars Ulrich and his syncopated, sometimes sloppy drumming, he did little to detract Metallica from quickly establishing themselves as the metal band for burgeoning musicians to listen to, relate to, and aspire to become. By 1986, I was was taking classical piano lessons, and despite my tender age, I could easily hear the direct links to the harmonies and song-structure Metallica employed that helped to set them apart from the other “Big Four,” as well as other heavy hitters such as Testament, Kreator and Exodus. While other bands focused on speed, heaviness and image, Metallica successfully blended ancient music with modern music to make something palatable for music enthusiasts of all ages and walks of life – a clear reason why many of their compositions have been covered by string quartets and orchestras over the years.
It is for complexity, musicianship, songwriting and general breadth of form and style that I believe Metallica is the superior band to Slayer in the 1983-1988 time period. Following that, things went downhill very quickly for Metallica. Thankfully, their work during the 80s is timeless, and I will be enjoying those albums until my final breath.
• • • • •
It’s necessary to preface this writing by providing a context for the opinion provided below. I was born in 1988. My own experience with 80s thrash was, by definition, retrospective. When I was first introduced to Reign in Blood, Slayer had just recently released God Hates Us All in 2001. I wasn’t there, but 80s thrash is an important gateway into heavy music for so many people that I feel like I can add something to this discussion. One of things I always loved about Slayer was the broad reach of their appeal across underground sub-groups. It’s been said that Motörhead is the one band that punks and metalheads can universally agree is awesome. I would argue that Slayer also fits that description. While Metallica’s evolution from Kill ‘Em All to …And Justice For All is something to be lauded, it was Slayer’s steadfast adherence to short, fast, aggressive songs and their rejection of everything remotely MTV that gave them credibility in the punk underground. That’s not to say that Slayer didn’t evolve, though. South of Heaven may not feature the lengthy multi-part compositions and instrumentals of Master of Puppets or …And Justice for All, but Slayer made significant steps forward with that record, adding clean guitars and deliberately slowing song tempos. None of the aggression would be sacrificed for that record, however, and South of Heaven still features some of my favourite cuts, including “Silent Scream”, “Behind the Crooked Cross”, and “Mandatory Suicide”.
If we’re going to compare the two bands strictly on the basis of the material released from 1983-1988, then most of it is on par for me when it comes the two bands. If I could argue for a weakest record out of the bunch, though, it would be …And Justice for All. It’s a record that I’ve always considered to be way too far up it’s own ass with its level of experimentation, and due to the flat sounding production, ultimately comes off as a bit boring as a whole.
For the reasons listed above, Slayer.
• • • • •
The idea of “The Big Four” has always seemed like a construct of record sales, but in terms of total 80s output, it was always really just The Big Two: Metallica and Slayer. And if there truly can be only one… Metallica wins. Period.
The 80s belonged to Metallica. In all of metal, only Iron Maiden had a better decade than Metallica, and even that is debatable. Metallica’s four albums in the 80s were as good as metal got, from the early youthful raging, through the dead seriousness and brilliance of Puppets and Justice, there was no equal. The proof is in the comparison, may it please the court. Slayer was known for blazing light speed; Metallica had “Damage Inc.” and “Metal Militia.” Megadeth was a bit more technical, a bit more musically refined; Metallica had “Ride the Lightning” and “Battery.” Anthrax had the thump and heft; Metallica had “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Harvester of Sorrow.”
Metallica could at least match their peers at their own game, but it was their unique moments that truly elevated them. “Orion,” “Master of Puppets,” “Fade to Black,” “Blackened,” etc. None of the other three bands had this kind of material in them, and Slayer definitely did not have this kind of range. Only their mastery over pure violence and evil gives them even the slightest chance to compete with Metallica. But one unique trait over many? Sorry boys, you’re second fiddle.
Now, if we move into 1990 and include Rust in Peace, Megadeth leapfrogs Slayer into second place, and things get interesting…
• • • • •
In truth, there is no wrong answer to the question of “which band had the better 80s output, Metallica or Slayer,” but there is a righter answer, even if it does feel a bit taboo typing the following six letters: Slayer.
Both bands existed during a time when metal struck a unique balance between increasing aggression/extremity while still attempting to accelerate the genre’s legitimacy/authority. Many would argue that Metallica did more in this regard, simply because they threw a wider net. Slayer was prevalent in the 80s, but Metallica was EVERYWHERE. Their early look was tuff and mostly denim, their lyrical content was far less wicked, and a kid didn’t have to worry as much about getting their ears boxed when their folks found a record like Master of Puppets propped up on their dresser. Put simply, they were a more accessible band, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time.
Comparatively, Slayer sported nails ’n’ leather, espoused evil, and a number of us had to smuggle their early records into the dark recesses of our rooms in an effort to keep some semblance of peace with vigilant parents. So, while Metallica had a broader appeal, Slayer rode closer to the Danger Zone. The biggest Metallica controversies I recall while living through those early years stemmed from one of the softest songs the band ever wrote, “Fade to Black,” plus a brief blowback from school administrators who had to deal with early heshers sporting “Metal Up Your Ass” shirts.
Of course, a metal band’s ultimate worth obviously ain’t gauged on danger alone. Many give the ultimate nod toward Metallica because the band managed to weave quite a bit of technical skill into their 80s output, particularly within those sweeping instrumentals. I happen to believe that Slayer’s overall deftness was always underrated (the closing moments of “Crionics,” for example), but a noteworthy salute is certainly due to Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton for their extraordinary skills.
But brothers and sisters, living with these albums for more than three decades delivers a fairly critical victory to the Huntington Park, CA boys based purely on the fact that Slayer was the one that ultimately captured metal’s rebellion, viciousness and DARKNESS in a way that Metallica never did, and that sort of deadly fusion trumps widespread influence and beautified proficiency in the long run. Crank the closing minute of “The Antichrist” and its bleeding depravity remains just as poisonous in 2016 as it was in 1983. And despite having full recognition of just how massive Reign in Blood was and still is (old bastards all remember the significance of having a cassette repeat on both sides), I will forever count the indomitable Hell Awaits as one of the top three thrash records of all time, thanks largely to the fact that it’s trumped only by Don’t Break the Oath in its irrefutably damnable atmosphere. The revolting riff that opens “At Dawn They Sleep” still makes me want to drink blood, and blood is absolutely awful.
In the end, atmosphere, wickedness, defiance, absolute drum superiority, legitimate riff dominance, and the ability to keep things under 40 minutes are all critical factors that give Slayer the 80s edge. But truly, both bands’ harvest from that decade will live with me until the very end, and for that I am forever thankful.
• • • • •
[K. SCOTT ROSS]
These days, when it comes to the real heavy metal spirit, there’s a reason that the accepted band name to yell aloud while throwing the horns is “SLAYYYYYYYERRRR!” But the 80s were a bit different. Metallica and Slayer had an incredible set of four albums, and the fact that I’m young enough that I didn’t encounter them until about 2002 means I got to eat them all up at once. Perhaps consuming them in this manner instead of spaced out from 83 to 88 makes a big difference, because for me it’s always been clear that Metallica is far superior.
It doesn’t matter if you compare each album, or just the two best (that’s Master of Puppets and Reign In Blood, in case you were confused), the result is always the same. Slayer makes me want to bang my head and flail around. Metallica makes me want to grab a guitar and microphone and play that music. Perhaps it’s the guitar tone. Perhaps it’s the solidity of the riffs. Perhaps it’s the fact that Metallica’s songs aren’t just repetitive “Satan, Satan, Satan” all day long. Perhaps it’s all of those things and more. All I know is that from “Phantom Lord” to “One,” I remember Metallica songs note for note, and they invite me to participate. To not just dance to heavy metal, but to be part of it. If all I had was Slayer, I would probably still be a metalhead. But because of Metallica, I’m a musician. And that makes Metallica my pick every time.
• • • • •
In a head to head battle for 80s supremacy between Slayer and Metallica, one must concede many things to the latter: In commercial success, Metallica probably outstrips Slayer by several orders of magnitude, even during the days before they really started selling records. Critical success likely goes the same way. Metallica had the flashy guitar player, the gifted bassist, and the finely crafted (and far more accessible) tunes. Full credit must also be given to Metallica for kicking the door open for thrash. Kill ‘Em All is the first thrash album, and anyone who says otherwise is just being a contrarian prick.
Conversely, Slayer did not kick open the door for thrash, they tore open the gates of Hell and unleashed a musical reign of terror, the echoes of which still reverberate across the full spectrum of extreme metal. Where Metallica essentially re-cast classic metal in the context of thrash with spectacular success, Slayer explored new worlds of musical extremity. They crafted a barely harnessed chaos into expressions of musical violence so potent, it made Metallica sound like pop music by comparison.
Much has been made of Metallica’s creative growth throughout the eighties, and it’s true that by Ride the Lightning, the band was basically playing chess while most of its peers were still struggling with checkers, but what occurred thereafter was not so much growth as it was refinement. One could argue that the band essentially made the same album twice with Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets, and even the more adventurous …And Justice For All (extra song notwithstanding) is cast in much the same structural mold as its predecessors. Slayer, on the other hand, changed with every release. The leap from the fairly compact tunes of Show No Mercy to the tangled, nearly progressive compositions of Hell Awaits is creative leap that rivals Metallica’s. Then to cast it all aside and make the most brutally efficient, sonically ferocious album of its time, Reign In Blood – that’s a leap the likes of which Metallica never made. And finally, when Slayer did eventually rein in the chaos a bit with South of Heaven, they proved to be just as effective as Metallica in making accessible thrash songs, while still coming across even heavier than ever before.
Tony Iommi has said that the initial aim of Black Sabbath’s music was to scare the shit out of people. If the true aim of heavy metal is to explore darkness and inspire fear, Slayer carried that torch in the eighties like no other. In a time when music could still be frightening, Slayer was the scariest band in the land.
• • • • •
A TIE. Ain’t that typical? Obviously not everyone who tows a rope at LR voted, likely because they were either too busy in their charity outreach work or in jail, so an attempt was made to reach an outside force in an effort to break our horrid deadlock:
Why Ice T? Well, obviously because he’s a detective with the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit. Sadly, he never responded directly, but he DID favorite a tweet where I explained “As a child of the 80s, both bands were a huge part of my life, but Slayer reached a different level of danger for me.” Is that good enough to count as a Slayer choice? I guess you’ll have to be the judge of that.
In the end, it all goes to show that the battle could be more balanced than some might think, which is great, because that means the war will rage on… FOREVER.
In the meantime, we’d love to know YOUR vote in the comments below. Or cast a ballot via our current Twitter poll that will be up until Sunday night:
Get the Friday party started early with a brutal poll: Who had the best 80s output, Metallica or Slayer? 80s only!
— Last Rites (@YourLastRites) March 17, 2016
Here’s a couple of potent 1985 primers to help get the fires raging: